It's as if Julio Belt's debut album was recorded in the memory of a childhood home, where instruments are culled from those that lay around the house and songs are born from forgotten dreams, recovered mementos, or just that feeling of a Sunday breeze. By its final song, we are left with the stark image of an artist that stands not at an impasse with his life, but rather a pitstop. There's no errand to run. There's coffee on the stove, and a seat for you in the kitchen. All the windows are open.
Congratulations on this beautiful, very intimate collection of songs. Bring us up to speed about what inspired the project, and what were the circumstances under which you recorded it.
In 2018 while I was on tour with TC Superstar, we listened to an episode of "Song Exploder" where Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast) talked about a project where she wrote and recorded a song everyday. At the time, I was feeling an urge to focus more on writing and recording my own music, so I decided to make one song a day for the month of July 2019. I mostly stuck to that plan and then shared those songs with a few friends over email. My goal was to turn those songs into an album. That project created the momentum that later turned into the album Moras / Mulberry. Funnily enough, only one of the songs from the July project ("Bus") made it onto the final album.
I was also feeling really inspired by the album "This Is How You Smile" by Helado Negro which came out in March of the same year. It was the first time I heard an album that was about being latinx that really resonated with me. It made me feel like there was some importance in making "indie" music that acknowledged the specificity of my experience as a Mexican-American person.
Because of COVID I was spending way more time at home, and with that time, was able to focus on working on the record. I was lucky enough to have recording gear at home, so I was able to write, record, and mix the album in my bedroom.
Jumping right into the recording, the first thing that stands out to me is the use of field recordings. On “Charlie” you can hear the sounds of a grocery store checkout aisle (barcode scanning, throwaway chatter) after the same is referenced in the song. Or on “Bamboo”, a distant cacophony of bird activity. How did this idea come about to include these sound bites? Did you gather these field recordings yourself? And what effect do you feel it has on the finished product?
I really love music that includes field recordings, some that come to mind immediately is the record "2 Sim" by Timothy Duval and "Mountain Sounds" by Yuichiro Fujimoto. I like that field recording requires attention and listening, more than it does "making". This is a skill I am always trying to practice, shutting up and listening more. I also love the idea that any sound around us can be interpreted as music.
Bamboo was a way of documenting my backyard in Cherrywood. I just put a microphone up against my bedroom window to capture the bird sounds, and had a big bamboo grove in my backyard, so I used pieces of bamboo from there to make the percussive sounds on that track.
The grocery store recording from Charlie was at an HEB. I grew up in Texas and have shopped at HEB my whole life. I love HEB. That song is about this plastic doll I carried everywhere as a kid named Charlie, and he definitely came with us to HEB.
I'm not sure what effect it has on the finished product, but I like the idea that it doesn't exist on a completely different plane than the sound we hear in our day to day lives. I hope it feels like it bleeds into the daily.
The other element of the recording that piqued my interest is the playful quality of some of the instruments. That is to say, some of the instruments sound like toys, or those fun vintage store finds straight from a 60’s Sears Roebuck catalogue. In “Moras” you find it most prevalent on the main acoustic guitar track. It has a very boxy, thin sound to it, as if maybe the guitar is undersized and has a small hole in it somewhere. Or on “Piel”, there’s a slow, distant drone from what sounds like a toy, plug-in organ. Tell me about these instruments that I’m hearing, whether this was by design (or necessity), and how you came to find them. Were any of them hard to play? Did any of them inspire you in a surprising way?
I like when people are transparent about process, so here's a list of everything I used:
Korg Minilogue; Classical Guitar; Lap Steel; Moog Grandmother (thanks Rock N Roll Rentals); Casio SK-5; Bass Guitar ; Logic Pro X (Some percussion sounds); Spiral Binding (Guiro sounds)
It was important to me to try and make a record that was different than what I've made or contributed to in the past. Every record I've made before this had drums on most of the tracks, so I intentionally didn't include a lot of "drum" sounds on the record. I also thought often about this quote by Arthur Russell:
"I like music with no drums, too, partly, I guess, from listening to drums so much. When you hear something with no drums it seems very exciting. I always thought that music with no drums is successive to music with drums. New music with no drums is like this future where they don't have drums any more. In outer space you can't take your drums – you take your mind."
I didn't include any electric guitar, which is primarily what I've played in bands. I really love the sound of Pedal Steel and Lap Steel, so I used that in place of electric guitar. I find the lap steel really inspiring because it is so beautiful.
For the "Moras" guitar part I used this trick that Blake Mills mentions in this interview and weaved a folded up sticky note between the guitar strings of my classical guitar so that the strums would be more percussive. I felt really stuck about how to make that song work until that guitar part came together.
In “Piel” I'm using the Korg Minilogue to create that texture in the background and running it through a bunch of weird effects. The Minilogue was the main synth I used on this record, and it was fun to use, especially as someone new to using a synth. One of the drum patterns from the SK-5 shows up in “Bus” at the end. I bought that keyboard when I was a teenager, but really didn't come to appreciate it until recently, so I am glad it had a little moment on the record.
In the past, I've really let myself get caught up with worrying about having the "right" gear, and tried to let go of that while working on this. I tried to trust what I already had.
On to the lyrics: stream of consciousness, an empathetic diary entry on a lazy Sunday, descriptions of the banal that bloom into poetry, then finally find their form as provocations against life’s existential questions…On “Moras”, this line in particular sold me on the whole record right away:Berries so sweet
They taught love by example
Tried to hold them in my arms
They stained my garage sale t-shirt
Can you remember what was on your mind when you wrote this? And if it’s not too personal, what goes through your mind reading it now?
Thanks for that kind description of the lyrics. I really try to write lyrics that find poetry in the banal. I was thinking about my mom when I wrote that line, and it stills come to mind when I read them now. I didn't grow up in a very economically privileged situation, so most of what I owned as a kid came from garage sales, but I feel like my childhood was really rich in love and care, so these words let those two things sit alongside each other.
To elaborate a little more about the lyrics, I like creating constraints for myself, it helps me move through work with purpose. As I was making the record I had a piece of paper up on my wall, from some writing about Nikki Giovanni: "…the personal into the universal, the mundane into the monumental, the traumatic into the transcendent" …and I used this as a guidepost for writing the words, and surely fell short. I am also always trying to say things simply.
“To celebrate moving slow…” I can’t help but feel that this fragment, from “Rainbow Wheel”, best encapsulates the feel of this record more than the rest. Is that fair? Was this sentiment, or any other, ever used as a prescription for making this record?
I think that's totally fair, I love that as a central idea for the record. What a sweet observation. I think COVID helped me (and others around me) appreciate the beauty in small and simple gestures and observations: sitting for 10 minute every morning and counting my breath, going for walks, calling my family regularly, sitting on my porch and watching people pass by, etc. So I was appreciating the slowness while I made this record.
I am also a really self-critical and anxious person, and feel pretty strongly about the importance of using my time intentionally and thoughtfully. This leads me to try and move quickly or become disappointed in myself when I don't use time well. So I am often reminding myself of the value in moving slowly and tenderly (towards myself and others).
As I was answering this question, it occurred to me that I have been including lyrics about slowness for quite a while now in my music, this song I wrote sometime in 2015 comes to mind, there's a lyric "I should try, to move slower, and be like you".
Tell me about “Instagram Feed”, a song that explores very similar grounds (modern technology, namely, social media, at odds with real human emotions and experiences) as the latest TC Superstar release, As Seen On TV.Three percent left
My screen goes black
Sometimes I wish it died and didn’t come back
Did this song come from the same writing sessions as that record?
I love thinking about this music in conversation with the TC Superstar stuff. The only track I contributed to lyrically on As Seen On Tv was "Frank Lloyd Wright". But I was definitely writing this at the same time that Connor was writing ASOTV. Interestingly enough, ASOTV and my record also both have songs about trailers / mobile homes. "Flaco" on my album and "Frank Lloyd Wright" on ASOTV.
Connor and I have been making music alongside each other for almost 8 years now, so it's sweet to think about the ways our work is in conversation. We work on a lot of stuff for TC together, so we end up hanging a lot and talking about what we are both thinking about, so I'm sure that was part of the equation.
I also have a really fraught relationship with social media (as I think most people do). My "thesis" project for my undergrad degree in design was about our relationships to our phones and social media, so it's something that I've been trying to understand for a while now.
In this day and age, social media is, for better or worse, an invaluable marketing tool for independent artists. Perhaps it’s inescapable. And groups like TC Superstar use it quite well. How do you cope with this? Is there a healthy balance you aim to strike between your personal life, and managing the “branding” of your work?
I have had a hard time with this. I don't really have any answers here, these are questions I am still figure out for myself. I definitely feel weird about posting about my music and urging people to listen to it, but also recognize that it's something you kinda have to do if you want anyone to listen to what you've made.
The most clarifying thoughts about this I've read are this interview with Emily Sprague for the Creative Independent — a wonderful publication. In this interview Emily says: “I think that my process, my method for using social media and the internet for self-promotion, is really just to use it as sort of humbly as I can, and just use it to be as true to myself as I can…” and later this: "I want to share my music because I think it’s for everybody. I made it, but it came from being alive, and everybody’s alive. I think that is the duty of an artist: not to have your music be your thing to show off, but your thing to share, and your thing to be like, ‘Hey, life made me feel this way. We’re all doing this together. We all have experiences that are from the same energy source.’"
Speaking of your work…I’ve long been a fan of your design sensibility with TC Superstar since coming across a zine for R&D, and that compliment extends to the very moving, meditative music video for “Moras”, as well as the album cover featuring what looks like a scanned, bleeding pomegranate. How does your approach to design and visual art stand in relation to your approach to writing, recording, or performing music?
Thank you! It's a scanned mulberry that I picked on a walk through Cherrywood sometime in April 2020.
My approach to making design and visual work has been, by necessity, more structured and rigorous. I studied design in undergrad, worked as a designer for a few years, and am now in a masters program for design. I haven't ever taken music lessons and have been self-taught, with the help of friends around me, who teach me informally. So my approach to music feels a lot looser, and is rooted in naive play and exploration.
Whether I am making sounds or images, I am always gathering inputs. As I was making this record, I was constantly adding to a playlist with songs I found inspiring and simultaneously adding images, words, quotes, etc to are.na.
I’ve heard that you are currently attending graduate school at Yale. What has it been like to be away from Austin? What things do you miss? Is there anything that you are surprised to not miss as much as you may have thought?
Yeah, I'm getting my MFA in Graphic Design. I miss it all. The move is still so fresh, that I'm still trying to understand it. Moving is so disruptive. This is my first big move in my life. Otherwise I've mostly lived in Texas.
I miss the sense of community I had in Austin. I have some close friends, who I am away from for the first time since our friendships formed. I miss the music community, playing in TC meant that I was able to spend a lot of time hanging out with other musicians in Austin, which I really miss.
I feel like melting when I think about having a cold Lonestar at Cheer Ups surrounded by pals.
What comes next for you as a solo artist?
I'd like to continue to have a practice of making music regularly and sharing it with people as often as I can. I am trying to find ways to merge my design and music practice more. I am hoping to play more shows on the east coast. I am slowly starting to work on some new songs, I want to work with more collaborators this time around. I am curious about making ambient music, music that would be nice to listen to at a house party, music that makes people feel like they are riding a bike.
Thank you so much for these questions, and for the attention you paid to the album and the surrounding context. I really enjoyed answering these.
“Moras / Mulberry” by Julio Belt is out now. Photo by Ursula Barker.